The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn: An inspirational timeless tale of determination - book review -
A tiny hero with a big heart stands head and shoulders above the rest in a dazzling debut novel set at the court of King Charles I.
Inspired by the life of Jeffrey Hudson – the court dwarf of Queen Henrietta Maria who was famously pictured alongside the monarch’s wife in a Van Dyke portrait – Frances Quinn brings us the tumultuous story of the English Civil War as witnessed by a small but courageous young man.
Using Hudson as her springboard, journalist and copy-editor Quinn turns the celebrated dwarf, known as Lord Minimus, into pint-sized Nat Davy, torn from his family and sold into servitude with the newly-crowned queen.
From this unique and fascinating perspective, we follow the trials and tribulations of the new king and queen as England moves inexorably into a land of bitter factions, while learning to love an irrepressible hero whose bravery, loyalty and genuine friendship become the mainstay of a naïve and vulnerable Henrietta Maria.
More than anything in the world, the diminutive, ten-year-old Nat Davy from Oakham in Rutland, the smallest county in England, wants to be normal. His mother says he has wisdom beyond his years but what Nat really wants is to climb trees and run fast like all the other boys.
His small size has its advantages – like watching people unnoticed and listening in on conversations – but his father thinks Nat is no use to the family as he cannot work and has plans to sell him at the local fair so that he can be put on display in a cage as ‘a freak.’
And in the year of 1625, the same year that the new King Charles I takes the throne, a single shilling changes Nat’s life forever. The Duke of Buckingham, the richest man in England who lives at the big house on the hill at Oakham, has spotted him and wants to take him to London.
His father sells his son willingly for 11 shillings, a shilling more than he would have got for the boy at the fair, and Nat is plucked from the loving arms of his mother with her words ringing in his ears. ‘I want you to remember something, Nat. You’re small on the outside. But inside you’re as big as everyone else. You show people that and you won’t go far wrong in life.’
Determined to prove to the world that even if he doesn’t grow, he can still be useful, Nat is hidden in a pie as a gift to ingratiate the Duke of Buckingham with 15-year-old Henrietta Maria of France, the recently crowned Queen of England.
But Nat soon discovers that the queen is as lost, lonely and homesick in her new life as he is, and he soon becomes her ally as she battles against the scheming of a husband she had never met before the wedding, and his Machiavellian friend, George Buckingham.
And when the people of England turn against their king and the world starts to turn upside down for the queen, Nat listens, observes and is there at her side as her story becomes his story too…
Over two decades of upheaval, struggle and strife, Nat’s distinctive voice – with its humour and its intensely human and innately humane resonance – speaks loudly about the dangers of prejudice and judging people on first appearances, and the rewards of true friendship.
Born with a disability that renders him ‘a freak’ in the eyes of 17th century society, Nat has to use all his wit and guile to survive the bullies, the political power play, and the slings and arrows of his life at the heart of a scheming court.
With real history providing the enthralling backdrop, Quinn lets her imagination take flight to place Nat’s relationship with the increasingly desperate Henrietta Maria at centre stage as the bloody end to Charles’s reign draws ever nearer.
The Smallest Man is a triumph of the (literally) small man against giant odds… a compelling and original account of one of the most turbulent periods of English history, and an inspirational, timeless tale of determination, overcoming ‘difference,’ finding love in unexpected places, and remaining true to your friends.
A thrilling first novel…
(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £8.99)